Archive for November, 2017

Sunday
November 26

And All the Angels With Him

By Marsh Chapel

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People of common faith trust in today’s Gospel, that as the least are treated, so treated is Christ the King.  How by faith one sees so, with the eyes of the heart, is a matter of pure mystery, of glad wonder—you could call it an angel song and sign. And all the angels with him…

Some years ago, we had the privilege in ministry—and ministry is privilege in full—to know such a person of faith, a native of Michigan.  Those years ago one would not have thought or needed to say so, but in our divided, conflictual era of abiding humiliation, which will in all probability endure a decade in length, we would today rightly add that our friend was all red.  Red to his toes, not an ounce of blue (with one exception) in his perspective, when it came to government or politics or taxes.  He had grown up in a small Michigan town.  It happens that so very long ago, one of his earlier pastors was later to become one of the now deceased former Deans of Marsh Chapel, Boston University.  In that town, he learned to love math and music, and on graduating from college had a hard choice—music or math.  He chose the latter, and on retirement had become the CFO of a major US corporation.  The only blue he celebrated was related to a certain big Michigan football team of his liking.  And he had his wisdom sayings, like, what is good for the Michi-goose is good for the Michigander. 

In those years, we had launched a mission in Honduras.  (The missioners have preached from this pulpit in past years). By some quirk our friend, more naturally inclined to music and finance work, had found himself on the missions committee.  It was proposed that the church send a work team the next winter.  My pastoral colleague with some astonishment announced at staff the next Tuesday that our friend was the first to volunteer.  In the soup kitchen ministry that year a group of parishioners and clients had together been reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. He had been reading it.  In and with that winter trip into the slums of Tegucigalpa, our dear friend’s faithful witness acquired a missional dimension.  In his full life, all red and blue aside to the contrary notwithstanding, and now in his choice within retirement to travel and work alongside the least, there was a true reliance on the truth of today’s Gospel.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  In a full and broad sense, down under the skin and right alongside the heart, and the eyes of the heart, we share a conviction, and a confidence, that the measure of faith is measured in the treatment of the least, the last, the lost.  Real religion is never very far from the justice that Ezekiel did prophesy would nourish, would feed, the scattered flock.  In Sunday worship, faithfully and without fail week by week, and in steady personal faithfulness within friendships, partnerships, and marriages, and in the disciplined determination to tithe—purposefully to give away each month a substantial portion of what we earn, up to a tenth—we follow the trail of faithfulness set before us by Ezekiel, by Ephesians, by the Psalmist, and preeminently by St. Matthew.  You hear our volunteer, communal, non-audition Thurman choir in faithful chorus this morning, for instance.  You will come to know over time, in the community of Marsh Chapel, the multiple creative and missional engagements of our people.  In research.  In medicine.  In public health.  In personal mission.  In advocacy for the enslaved.  In disaster response.  In personal giving.  But mainly, in worship, faithfulness, and tithing.

Come Sunday, the ancient witnesses to faith found in our Holy Scriptures, are meant to recall for us that we are not the first people to face unprecedented, novel difficulties and challenges.

We may differ to some measure, red and blue, about just how to lean forward into Matthew 25.  But the foundational truth of the Gospel here, in normal season and in normal outlook, is not in doubt.  As you have done it to the least of these, you also have done it to me.  We have ample cause to meditate upon such an evangelical, dominical command, in a season in which our nation is fractured by flagrant inequality between rich children and poor children, measured directly and easily in the distribution, or lack thereof, of education and health care.   The least among us, children, those who are hungry by the hour, who thirst by the half hour, who are naked unless clothed by others, who are imprisoned in slightness and weakness, who are the very stranger in our midst, generation to generation, mark out the edge of the least of the least.

How does such an apperception of faith, finally, settle upon the mind and heart?  How, that autumn evening long ago, in yet another church committee meeting which like the peace of God may have passed all understanding and endured forever, did our Michigander friend become seized by a full measure of grace?  Whence faith, change, heart, grace, compassion?  It is the work of the ministry, and the special work of the pulpit, to preach Christ the King—to teach, delight and persuade—so that across the rainbow spectrum of cultural and political thought, women and men may have faith in God.  How does this happen, when it happens, as it happens, if it happens at all?

Our Gospel today gives us a clue, a hint, a glimpse.  And all the angels with him…The Son of Man will arrive with some help.  We may quickly leave behind a literal idea of angels.  But the reality they represent, the uncanny sense of presence, the inexplicable moment of revelation, the seeing by the heart, by the eyes of the heart—these angelic signs can become, for you, this season, the nearness of Christ the King, and so, by grace, your footpath to faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  What do you hear this Lord’s Day?  This is your invitation to a life of faith.  Do you receive, open and read, ready to respond?  Or do you re-post, marking it off, return to sender?

There is a range of life through which there radiates, like morning sunlight, high and deep and piercingly real experience.  Most of this range of experience is not, or not only, in worship or liturgy or ecclesiastical involvement or patterned devotion—these are of course crucial and important, but more as signposts than as the actual meadows and still waters of religious, that is to say non-religious, religious experience.

There is transcendence all about us.  Maybe that is why you have come, together, to worship on this Sunday.  What are the signposts, the clues to transcendence we should look for—in our lived experience?

This year we bade farewell to our esteemed colleague and beloved friend Professor Peter Berger.  Are you looking for angels?  His summary still works, A Rumor of Angels.  You may be surprised by the clues he names, the rumors of angels he overhears.  For this Lord’s Day, Christ the King Sunday, we recall his five suggestive allusions to the transcendent, the angels coming with the Son of Man.  Listen to them this day.  Give them the credit they deserve.  They are the angelic nudges, drawing you to faith.

First, give a little credit to your own blessed rage for order.  Berger:  Man’s propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’.  Do you have a longing for order? Underneath, just there, is a mode of religious experience.

Second, and swinging to a different spot, pause and meditate a little on your own enjoyment of play.  Berger: In playing, one steps out of one time into another…When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.

Third, we sense the ‘supranatural’, the transcendent, in the experience of hope.  Hope does spring eternal in the human breast. Where there is life there is hope.  Better:  where there is hope there is life.  People with no regular religion at all know about hope, and its absence.  Berger: Human existence is always oriented toward the future.  Man exists by constantly extending his being into the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity. B.  Put differently, man realizes himself in projects…It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of the here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering…There seems to be a death-refusing hope at the very core of our humanitas.  While empirical reason indicates that this hope is an illusion, there is something in us that, however shamefacedly in an age of triumphant rationality goes on saying ‘no!’ and even says ‘no’ to the ever so plausible explanation of empirical reason.

Fourth, we have burning desire to see real justice done, and also to see massive injustice called to account.  It is this angel, in particular, and in full who sits down beside us in Matthew 25. As you have done it to the least of these… Berger: This refers to experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged… There are certain deeds that cry out to heaven…to a moral order that transcends the human community.

Fifth, one can sense the horizon of heaven, the transcendent radiance of mystery, the ‘supranatural’ or supernatural, in the simple experience of humor, perhaps the very polar opposite of the cry for retributive justice.  Berger:  There is one fundamental discrepancy from which all other comic discrepancies are derived—the discrepancy between man and the universe… The comic reflects the imprisonment of the human spirit in the world…Humor mocks the ‘serious’ business of the world and the mighty who carry it out…Power is the final illusion, while laughter reveals the final truth…It is the Quixote’s hope rather than Sancho Panza’s ‘realism’ that is ultimately vindicated, and the gestures of the clown have a sacramental dignity.

Order, play, hope, justice, humor: religious experiences without recourse to religion. You may not be so religious, or so you think.  But do you create order, and crave play, and desire hope, and long for justice, and enjoy humor?  These are signs, for you, signs of something else, something lasting and true and good and extraordinary.  And all the angels with him…

Sleepers awake!  Hear the Good News.  There is not an infinite amount of unforeseen future in which to come awake and to become alive!  There does come a time when it is too late, allowing the valence of ‘it’ to be as broad as the ocean and as wide as life.  You do not have forever to invest yourself in deep rivers of Holy Scripture, whatever they may be for you.  It takes time to allow the Holy to make you whole.  Begin.  You do not have forever to seek in the back roads of some tradition, whatever it may be for you, the corresponding hearts and minds which and who will give you back your own-most self.  It takes time to uncover others who have had the same quirky interests and fears you do.  Begin.  You do not have forever to sift and think through what you think about what lasts and matters and counts and works.  Honestly, who could complain about young people seeking careers, jobs, employment, work?  Do so.  But work alone will not make you human, nor allow you to become a real human being.  Life is about vocation and avocation, not merely about employment and unemployment.  You are being sold a bill of goods, here.  Be watchful.  It takes time to self-interpret that deceptively crushing verse, ‘let your light so shine before others’.  Begin.  You do not have forever to experience Presence.  It is presence, spirit, good for which we long, for which, nay for Whom, we are made.  It takes time to find authentic habits of being—what makes the heart sing, the soul pray, the spirit preach.  Your heart, not someone else’s, your soul,  not someone else’s your spirit, not someone else’s.  Begin.  And begin with the least: As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25)

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Sunday
November 19

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Preface

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’.  He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’.  He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name’.  He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.  He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us!  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!  Come, especially today, amid the beauties of Bach and the rituals of Thanksgiving, to remember your humanity, fragility, mortality…eternity.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Bach today, and the Scripture every day, sing out to us:  God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.

Longing

 The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow. The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  So, Shelley.

El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality. El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.  So, Unamuno.

Our cantata today sings of heaven.  The cantata sings out for what lasts, matters, counts.

Lao Tze wrote:  The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it. The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.

At the heart of the human being there is a longing for God, for heaven, for eternity.

Pause for a minute.  Sometimes that longing has an overture in other forms of emptiness, of lack, of longing.

One autumn, following a brief pastoral conversation, you could see lingering on the leaf pocked porch step, a woman at young middle age.  For a variety of reasons, common enough, in her whole life she had really no real friends, until by grace in the years before, and by grace in the church of Christ, she had found a friend, made a friend, become a friend, been befriended by another woman her own age, with children of the same ages, husbands of the same baleful tempers, parents of the same haunting failings.  She had a friend.  If you have friend, one is a great number in a lifetime, then you know.  But in June her friend moved a long way away.   Come November, there was that ache, that emptiness, that longing, that ‘shape of the void within’.  To date, no other friend has come along to fill that void.

And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?  If only I had finished my degree.  If only I had fallen in love.  If only I had really discerned a calling.  If only I had kept that other job.  If only I had more loving parents.  If only I could put words to the pre-dawn presentiments of what I think is faith.  If only someone would notice that I can be a good pal.  If only I could shake off this daily anxiety.  If only someone would publish my book.  If only I could get the grace to forgive what he or she did to me.  If only my parents would see my beloved as I see him.  If I only I could wake once with a smile.  If only he would see me as I really am.  And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?

The more proximate longings can prefigure the ultimate longing, in its own full way unspeakable but not for that reason any less real.

The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Pastoral experience in the main shows that most of us most of the time do not fear death, but we do fear.  What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams. What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams.  Maybe something like that is behind Matthew’s rendering of the inherited parable today, his anger, his burning mean-spirited dyspepsia.  Said a faithful Anglican a few weeks ago: ‘How much longer do we hear from Matthew and the dark side?’ Not long, not long.  Yet Matthew’s recognition of the human failures in the human condition we do recognize in our own years of humiliation. The longing, that heaven shaped soul emptiness, that desire—anhelo—abides.  How does Bach sing this today?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Singing

In this year’s Bach Experience, we have been focusing on cantatas Bach composed in his first weeks in Leipzig as cantor at St. Thomas. His task was to provide a musical explication of the day’s lessons alongside the sermon. These cantatas, comprising solo arias, recitatives, choruses, and chorales, with librettos using both scripture and free poetic texts, typically last about 20 – 30 minutes. In this context, it was Bach’s task to work through the theological ideas at hand. Each cantata is masterpiece in miniature, and we continue to marvel at the astonishing invention, creativity, and complexity revealed note by note.

Cantata 95, ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’, takes up one of the most difficult but ubiquitous themes of Bach’s day: how to reconcile and countenance our mortality. Our program annotator writes: Consider that pre-Enlightenment Germany saw death and devastation in the Thirty Years’ War unknown to Europe since the fourteenth century, and that Bach himself was orphaned at age ten and lost his first wife and ten of his twenty children. Death was all around; the promise of immediate salvation cultivated a cultural longing for it and served as a powerful call to faith.”

Serving to teach, remind, and also comfort, Bach drew on four different familiar hymns or chorales that serve as the foundation for this seven-movement cantata. These tunes and texts serve as a beacon to the believer — a tuneful and memorable transmission of theology: Christ, He is my Life, To die is my gain; To it do I surrender myself, With joy I go yonder. / With peace and joy I go there according to the Will of God. Death has become my sleep. / I would bid you farewell, You evil, false world. In heaven it is good to dwell. / Since Christ is arisen from the dead, I will not remain in the grave; Your last Word is my ascension, Death’s dear You can drive away. For where You are, there do I come, That I may always live and be with You; Therefore I depart with joy.

These chorales establish the orthodoxy around which the believer can begin to reconcile his own personal response and call. Musically, the four chorale setting also offer a composition guide to the possibilities of setting chorale tunes. The first is set as an orchestral chorale fantasia with each phrase of the chorale set off by exuberant motives from the oboes and strings in G major. The second, heard as the concluding section of the first movement, casts the chorus in counterpoint with the oboes and and horn set over a more rhythmic, walking bass line. The soprano soloist takes up the third chorale, in a little aria that becomes a sweet devotional song with two oboes d’amore in unison encouraging her song. The cantata concludes with a four part setting of the fourth chorale in an expected way, with the notable additional of a fifth voice as descant in the fist violin part.

The most remarkable music of the cantata is reserved for the tenor soloist, who, through his clarity of faith, teaches Bach’s congregants a possibility of their personal attitudes toward mortality. His music in the central aria is sung almost in spite of the music of the instruments, which seem to proceed on their own clock. The aural image here is one of funeral bells, or a glockenspiel in a bell tower. The strings play entirely pizzicato, or plucked, throughout, and the organ remains silent. You can imagine this sound as the inner workings of the clock played in precise and regular patterns and rhythms. On two, the two oboes play their melody in parallels. The missing third note of their chords is obscured in the pizzicatos of the first violin part. And, to my ear, this further contributes to the ‘mechanized’ sound of this music – a Leichenglock or funeral bells. The tenor joins up musically with the instruments every time he sings the words “blessed hour”, singing the third or missing note in the oboe pattern. There are so many choices here from the composer revealing a musical reality the likes of which only a Johann Sebastian Bach could imagine.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Praying

Some of you have been reading again the Confessions of St. Augustine, in Sarah Ruden’s new translation.  Like the music of Bach, the music of his poetic prose, his prosaic poetry, lasts and matters and counts.  Augustine lifts our eyes from earth to heaven, from the visible to the invisible, from the daily to the divine.  Bach does the same.  Augustine in powerful particularity, teaches us again to pray.  In a word, for him, prayer is thanksgiving.  All right, in four words, prayer is grace, courtesy, respect, and gratitude.  Prayer is not a spiritual hockey puck, hit by slap-shot toward the masked goalie God.  Prayer is being thankful, giving thanks, bespeaking gratitude.  Howard Thurman knew this so well.  As the student choir Morehouse College sang, to honor Thurman’s birthday, in prayer, we give thanks.  So, each year, at Marsh Chapel, on this Sunday, so close to his birthdate, on this Sunday, so close to our nation’s holiday, on this Sunday, so set apart to honor the grateful, we offer Thurman’s Thanksgiving prayer.  You may, by the way, take it from the website to your own Thanksgiving table, should you want need or like. Count it our annual public service!

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger on by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music 

Sunday
November 12

Luther on God at Play

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Gen. 32:24-30

Matt. 11:12-19

Click here to listen to the meditations only

 

Luther on God at Play[1]

Does God play games? The fear that God might lies at the root of the anxieties of the modern world. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, sought certainty in the face of the possibility that God (the deus deceptor) might play tricks; and his opponents, solid Dutch Calvinist theologians, accused him of blasphemy for suggesting that such a thing was possible.[2] Albert Einstein famously objected to quantum mechanics by insisting that “God does not play at dice with the universe.” Enlightenment thinkers criticized the Christian God on moral grounds, insisting that God had to act according to our own, rationally discerned rules. The roots of this modern anxiety go far back into medieval and ancient philosophy and theology, which placed God at the transcendent apex of a crystalline hierarchy of being, or set God over the world as a sovereign legislator.

For Martin Luther, however, God is a God who plays games.

By now, on the second Sunday in November, 2017, two weeks after the October 31 anniversary of 1517, you are probably tired of hearing about Luther’s Ninety-Five theses and whether or not they were nailed on the Wittenberg church door.  This morning, I want to propose a different framework for considering Luther and his Reformation in this five hundredth anniversary year: God at play.

In the Gospel read this morning, Jesus says: “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’  . . . Yet wisdom is justified by her children.”[3]

For most of the centuries since Luther’s lifetime, until the liturgical reforms of the late twentieth century, this Gospel lesson was the one appointed to be read at commemorations of the Reformation. Luther understood this text to embody God’s call as a call to play: to join with God in God’s divine game.

Luther’s world was one (perhaps not unlike our own) in which games were coming into their own.  In a remark at table in 1537, Luther observed that

Games with cards and dice have become common, for our age has invented many games. Surely there has been a great change. In my youth, all games were prohibited; makers of cards and musicians at dances weren’t admitted to the sacraments, and people were required to make confession of their gaming, dancing, and jousting. Today these things are the vogue, and they are defended as exercises for the mind.[4]

Luther himself played chess with students,[5] and was familiar with the ancient European game of Mills known in English as Nine-Men’s-Morris. He compared the devil with a player who catches his opponents in a “double mill” in which no matter what the opponents do, the devil has them his trap.[6] Luther penned a satire on the pope and emperor based on the old German card game of Karnoffel.[7]

Yet this kind of game based on rules is not what Luther has in mind when he insists that God plays games.  Rather, these are the games that humans try to play with God—to subject God to the rules, as if we could catch God in our own “double mill” of metaphysical or ethical necessity. For Luther, this human impulse to play games with God by catching God in our own rules was exemplified by the scholastic theologians who “speculate and play games with God up in heaven: what He is, thinks, and does in Himself, and so on.”[8]

Among Luther’s own supporters, he discerned a distressingly similar effort to entrap God in the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli, who argued that God’s omnipotence in fact precludes His presence in the Sacrament, because for God to be bound to the elements would be a limitation of divine power.[9] For Zwingli, the God of human games is bound by necessity even in his omnipotence. God is spirit; He cannot be flesh. God is light; He cannot be obscure. But Luther’s God, playing not human games but the divine game, is radically free.

God’s game, for Luther, is not a rule-based game like chess or cards.  Rather, it has more in common with a sort of unstructured play, of pretending and playing in back-and forth alternation between the players.  Luther loves to describe God as wearing masks which simultaneously conceal and reveal God’s self: the masks of Creation itself, of the Word and the Sacraments—and Luther speaks of masks which God invites us to put on in the world: the masks of parenthood or political office, of responsibility for neighbors and for creation.  For Luther, the point is not to remove the masks or penetrate through them to God in unmasked majesty, but to join in God’s game.[10]

Luther can sometimes think of the public masquing of Carnival in describing this masked play, but he imagines God’s masks above all in terms of the games between parents and children: the kind of pretending and tricks for the sake of jest that give way to shared laughter and joy. We might think, for example, of a father who lumbers around pretending to be a hungry bear, to the combined sheer terror and equally sheer delight of his children, a game which begins with terrifying ursine growls but ends with bear hugs and laughter.

Indeed, when Luther describes God as “Father,” he is typically not invoking a perilous analogy of being between human masculinity and divine activity, as Aquinas and other realist theologians do, but describing a relationship typified by this kind of play. “God plays with us, and we are his dear children; he dandles us and chastises us.”[11]  God is a father who plays games.

What sets Luther’s understanding apart is not simply the idea of God’s play, but the kind of play. The great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the first editor of the Greek New Testament, when he finally took up his pen against Luther, compared God to a father who holds out an apple to a child in order to teach the child how to walk over and take it. The apple is a gift, but the child must learn to respond in order to get the prize. In a similar vein, Erasmus argued about the commandments. God would not command “thou shalt” to human beings who were utterly unable to comply.[12]

Luther has a more complex image of divine fatherhood and of God’s games: “How often,” Luther writes, “do parents have a game with their children by telling them to come to them, or to do this or that, simply for the sake of showing them how unable they are, and compelling them to call for the help of the parents’ hand!”[13]

Erasmus’ God plays games that are edifying and straightforward and cultivate independence (perhaps the sort of educational games that parents buy for their children that get played once or not at all)! Luther’s God plays games with terrifying reversals; their point is not to teach a lesson to be taken away from the game but to draw the players closer together.

What matters is not rules, or winning or losing, but the playing itself and the persons whom the game binds together.

God plays this game through preaching: preaching which does not simply inculcate a set of rules to keep to march up the ladder until we reach God on the final rung, but preaching which summons us now to mourn with the wailing of the Law, now to dance with the piping of the Gospel.

God plays this game through song, like Luther’s dramatic hymn which we sing this morning, “Dear Christians one and all, rejoice,” itself a proclamation of God’s play with the world.  When we sing together in church, we are not only singing to God, but calling out to one another. When I come to church on a given Sunday, I may or may not feel particularly penitent or joyful or even very strong in faith. If it were simply a matter of my own devotion and the state of my own heart I might or might not feel like singing at all. But Jesus tells us that you need the sound of my voice, and I need the sound of yours. God’s game continues through our singing, the call of the children calling to each other in the marketplace.

God plays this game through ordinary human words, spoken by one human creature to another, and makes them the power of God unto salvation [Rom. 1:16]. The Scriptures themselves, for Luther, are examples (as well as witnesses) of God’s play. Why do the Scriptures deal so much with inconsequential, practical matters like the marriages, households, and flocks of the patriarchs and matriarchs rather than with high, spiritual mysteries? It is because, Luther says, “the Holy Spirit, God the Creator, deigns to play, to jest, and to trifle with His saints in unimportant and inconsequential matters.”[14] Things which seem unimportant measured in themselves are nonetheless important within God’s game.

God plays this game through the ordinary water of Baptism which, joined with God’s Word, becomes a “gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” [Tit. 3:5].  God plays through the Supper, in which Jesus gives not what the senses perceive or philosophy can explain but what Jesus’ words declare: His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

Zwingli, of course, sees all this as being “rather childish.”[15]  But for Luther, that is only being a spoilsport, the kind of peevish child who perhaps thinks himself too grown-up and refuses to join in the game. Luther writes, “these godless ones are not ready for God’s game—that is, for dealing with the Gospel—and they spoil it as much as they are able.”[16]

Here Luther stands also against old Pelagius, who described the mature Christian as so grown up that he no longer needs God (emancipatus a Deo) and with Augustine, for whom the Christian was always dependent on God’s grace like the child stilled at its mother’s breast (Ps. 131:2).[17] Spiritual growth for Luther is not increasing independence but an ever-deepening faith and reliance upon God, not independence. For Luther, the Christian never outgrows God’s play.

To say that God is a God who plays games is, after all, to say that faith is the fundamental relationship with God.  The God who does not play games does not need faith. If God is caught in human metaphysical or ethical schemes, then I can know what God must necessarily do toward me by analyzing my own status: if I am good, then God who is Good must be good toward me. If I am like God in my inner being then I am part or participant in God. But with the God who plays games, there can be only faith, trust like that of a child who is tossed in the air and can only trust that he will be caught in his father’s arms. The point of the game, again, is not victory for one side or the other through the application of rules, but the relationship of trust and love that is deepened between the players.

Above all, God plays this game through Jesus.  Jesus is the Wisdom of God, the wisdom who calls out in the marketplace, the wisdom who eternally delights to play with humanity.  Proverbs 8[:30-31 Vg] describes her: “I was with [God], arranging all things, and I took delight day by day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the world, and my delight was to be with the children of men.”[18]

This is the Wisdom who comes into the world incarnate not as a solemn grown-up but as a child. For Luther, the incarnation of the Son of God thus embodies this eternal divine game: “we have an infant, this Child [Isa. 9:6]: the mother bears Him for us, nurses Him for us; He remains a Child for us for ever.  He does not display Himself to us in somber seriousness, not in some terrible majesty at which we would have to tremble, but he shows Himself to us as a little Child, and in his childhood he plays with us to all eternity.”[19] God’s play with His beloved people in Christ is perpetual and eternal.

Luther finds God at play throughout the Gospels and throughout the Scriptures. Jesus jests and plays with his disciples, in words and deeds, terrifying them as if he were a ghost when he comes to them over the sea before revealing himself and consoling them by calming the storm.[20] Jesus plays with the Syrophonecian woman when he denies her plea for help, but she joins in the game and compels Jesus through her faith.[21]  For a moment, God’s game may seem terrifying even to the saints—the game of the cat which means death to the mouse, as one of Luther’s German proverbs puts it.[22] Nevertheless, behind the mask or specter of anger, God is playing as a loving father with his children, and the saints come to perceive the sweetness of God’s game.

In Genesis, Luther finds the ultimate and climactic game of God with the patriarchs and matriarchs in Jacob’s wrestling with the angel of the Lord, grappling all night until finally the divine wrestler renders Jacob helpless by putting his hip out of joint.  Yet Jacob will not let go. Luther insists, “[this] wrestler is the Lord of glory, God Himself, or God’s Son, who was to become incarnate and who appeared and spoke to the fathers.” It is in playing, not simply in yielding but in wrestling with God, that Jacob comes to know God. “Jacob has no idea who it is who is wrestling with him; he does not know that it is God, because he later asks what His name is. But after he receives the blessing, he says: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face.’ Then new joy and life arise.”[23] It is this God who plays games who is able to become flesh, to reveal himself through playing, to gives himself as pledge.

When God plays his game with the saints, he does not simply set up a game for them to play (and lose) against terrible opponents—sin, death, and hell. Rather, God himself is in the game, in the Incarnation. God does not simply preside over the game in omnipotent transcendence. As we might say, quite literally, God has skin in the game. Therefore, as Luther says, “I do not have nor know any other God, neither in heaven nor on earth, but this One who is warmed at His mother’s breast, who hangs upon the cross.”[24]

To play God’s game is to play with God, the incarnate God. Wisdom, Jesus says, is justified by her children, the children who hear God’s call and join in God’s game.

Luther’s God plays games. In this five hundredth year of the Reformation, will we play along?

-Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, Associate Professor of Church History, Boston University School of Theology


[1] See Christopher Boyd Brown, “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 81.1-2 (January/April 2017):153-170. http://www.ctsfw.edu/resources/concordia-theological-quarterly/archive/   On the theme of God’s play in Luther’s theology, see Ulrich Asendorf, Lectura in Biblia: Luthers Genesisvorlesung (1535–1545) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998); John Maxfield, Luther’s Lectures on Genesis and the Formation of Evangelical Identity (Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2008); S. J. Munson, “The Divine Game: Faith and the Reconciliation of Opposites in Luther’s Lectures on Genesis,” CTQ 76 (2012):89–115.

[2] Cf. Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 117f.

[3] There is a textual variant between ἐργων [deeds] and τεκνων [children].

[4] Table Talk of January 1537, WA TR 3:377, no. 3526a; LW 54:221–222

[5] Johann Mathesius, in Georg Loesche, ed., Luthers Leben in Predigten, Bibliothek deutscher Schriftsteller aus Böhmen 9, 2nd ed. (Prague: J. G. Calve/Josef Koch, 1906) , pp. 430-31. For allusions to chess, see, e.g., Answer to the HyperChristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser (1521), LW 39:211 (WA 7:677); Notes on Ecclesiastes (1526), LW 15:40 (WA 20:47).

[6] E.g., Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:203 (WA 38:562).

[7] Eine Frage des ganzen heiligen Ordens der Kartenspieler vom Karnöffel (1537), WA 50:131-34.

[8] Sermons on the Seventeenth Chapter of St. John (1528/1530), LW 69:39 (WA 28:101).

[9] See Heiko Oberman, The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, translated by Andrew Colin Gow (London: T & T Clark, 2004), pp. 195-97.

[10] For discussion of the larva Dei in terms of God’s play, see Anthony J. Steinbronn, The Masks of God: the Significance of Larvae Dei in Luther’s Theology, STM thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN, 1991.

[11] De Sacerdotum dignitate Sermo, 1517?, WA 4:656.

[12] Erasmus, Discussion of Free Will, translated by Peter Macardle, in CWE. 76.  See Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550 (New Haven: Yale, 1980), p. 297.

[13] Bondage of the Will (1525), LW 33:120 (WA 18:673).

[14] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 5:353, translation altered (WA 43:672).

[15] The Marburg Colloquy and the Marburg Articles (1529), LW 38:21 (WA 30/3:118).

[16] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534–35/1538), LW 67:133 (WA 38:521).

[17] See Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 351-52.

[18] Cf. Lectures on Genesis (1535-45/1544-54), WA 42:184, 44:466 (LW 1:248, 7:225).

[19] Enarratio capitis noni Esaiae (1543-44/1546), WA 40/3:641.

[20] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:229–231 (WA 38:579-80).

[21] Annotations on Matthew 1–18 (1534-45/1538), LW 67:253-57 (WA 38:593-97).

[22] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 7:225 (WA 44:466).

[23] Lectures on Genesis (1535–45/1544–54), LW 6:130 (WA 44:96-97).

[24] Lectures on Isaiah (1528/1530), WA 25:107 (cf. LW 16:55).